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Healthy writing on the menu at Massey

Healthy writing on the menu at Massey

When it comes to health, ‘we are what we read’ may be just as important as ‘we are what we eat,’ according to Massey University health writing specialist Dr Raquel Harper.

Consumers are increasingly bombarded with complex, and at times contradictory, information about health across multiple media on a daily basis – via the popular press and their own Google searches. And if our health status is linked to our health literacy, then the quality of the information we rely on to make decisions is crucial, she says.

From weighing up if the Paleo, or Caveman, diet is the ultimate path to good health; or how to reduce cholesterol, have more energy, keep fit, avoid cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia etcetera – the inexorable flow of facts can leave the average punter feeling perplexed and overwhelmed.

“There’s so much information out there now – it’s hard to know what’s credible and what’s not,” says Dr Harper, whose research spans West Nile Virus to the role of electronic cigarettes.

A new paper in health writing she is launching this year at the Albany campus aims to address health consumers’ knowledge gaps and confusion. It trains humanities and science students in how to evaluate health research so they can then identify the key findings. They also learn how to translate scientific jargon into succinct, clear language so that readers can easily comprehend the implications.

Dr Harper was born in New Zealand and has spent most of her life in Europe and the United States. She began her career with a degree in physiotherapy at Western Washington University, followed by a Master of Science in Technical Communication, and a doctoral degree in Public Communication and Technology, both at Colorado State University.

“I’m really interested in helping the public understand health and science information; and helping health and science scholars understand how to better communicate to the public,” she says. “I started out in physiotherapy, but realised that what I really enjoyed was researching and writing about different health and science topics.”

Dr Harper has recently published her research on the creation of a comprehensive health literacy assessment tool for measuring health literacy in young adults, and has investigated the social acceptability of electronic smokeless cigarettes. She has also written health and science articles for

several publications, including Biophotonics International and the National Cancer Institute.

A perfect way to marry her twin interests in science and writing, she says health writing “is still a niche area. But the demand for good science and health writers is growing as patients’ voices and choices expand.”


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